(February 2001) What is America becoming? At the beginning of the 21st century, we are without question the most racially and ethnically diverse of the world’s more developed countries. In fact, we are more diverse than ever before in our history, with no signs of slowing down. How will we fare in the future when race-related issues such as immigration, employment, educational achievement, and affirmative action are already so contentious today? Socially and economically, we have made real progress since our segregated past of 50 years ago, but there are still deep and persisting disparities between many minority groups and whites.

Attitudes Undermine Achievement in School

Racial perceptions can and do affect school performance. Research by Ronald Ferguson shows that teachers do not expect black and Hispanic children to achieve at levels comparable to non-Hispanic whites, that they subconsciously — and sometimes consciously — convey this belief in their instruction of children, and that this expectation lowers black and Hispanic children’s cognitive test scores. In addition, there is evidence that lower performance may be a function of popular minority-group culture, which sets achievement levels for blacks and Hispanics below those set in white and Asian communities. Thus, within both the classroom and the peer group, attitudes undermine minority achievement.

Hispanics’ Income Has Deteriorated

Significant wage differentials along racial lines are a longstanding feature of the American economy. And, although considerable progress has been made in eradicating the wage gap between the races, progress has not eliminated race as an important predictor of an individual’s income. For example, in 1940, the average black male worker earned only 43 percent as much as his white counterpart; by 1990, it was 75 percent as much. The pace at which blacks have been able to narrow the wage gap, however, has been erratic. The largest improvement occurred during the 1940s; during the 1950s, advances slowed considerably; during the 1960s and 1970s, the rise in black men’s wages was more than 10 percent higher than the rise in white men’s wages; but after 1980, labor-market progress for blacks slowed considerably.

Hispanics, as an aggregate, have not fared so well. Their market position actually deteriorated in the 1980s and 1990s. From 1970 to 1990, the wages of Hispanic men decreased by 16 percent compared with those of white men. The special labor-market disadvantages experienced by recent immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries pose particular challenges for Hispanic workers. Unscrambling the multiple factors responsible for the stagnation that both blacks and Hispanics have experienced is a formidable task, but contributing elements are the relative impacts of quality of education, lack of affirmative action, and rising wage inequality.

Economic disparity is nowhere more glaring than in measurements of wealth based on disposable assets. The gap increases sharply with net worth. The picture is most extreme for blacks, and can be traced to factors such as differences in real-estate ownership and lower participation in wealth-creating business activities. The home ownership rate for blacks in 1994 was about 20 percent lower than the rate for whites. Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro contend that this difference was not just the result of income differences, but was also a product of the historical legacy of residential segregation and discrimination in real estate and lending markets.

Blacks Have High Cancer Death Rates

Perhaps the gloomiest aspect of racial and ethnic life in the United States is that many differences in health by race and ethnicity persist, with the members of many, but not all, racial and ethnic minorities experiencing worse health than the majority population. For example, in 1995 blacks had the highest death rates from all cancers; all the other racial groups had cancer death rates that were about 35 percent lower than whites. Hispanics have enjoyed relatively good health by some measures, although there is considerable variation by national origin-for example, the health of Puerto Ricans is worse than that of whites, whereas the health of Mexican Americans and Cubans is better.

Faith Mitchell is deputy executive director of the Division on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education at the National Research Council, in Washington, D.C.

For More Information

This article summarizes findings from a conference of the nation’s leading scholars on racial and ethnic relations. In a significant departure from the past, the conference considered past and current trends not only for blacks and whites, but also for Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians, recognizing that getting a complete picture of today’s American society requires looking comprehensively at all the major racial groups. The National Research Council has published the findings in America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences. The book can be ordered by telephone (800/624-6242 or 202/334-3313) or at the National Academy Press website: www.nap.edu. Full text can be accessed online at the same site.